Monday, November 03, 2008

And that is what we are

Sermon preached on All Saints' Sunday at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

It’s All Saints’ Sunday and we’ve got the best news to tell in the whole wide world, that is, if we can avoid the traps that are set before us that can undo that good news in the wink of an eye.

There are at least three places where the trap is manifest this morning. First up is the Collect of the Day, the prayer at the opening of the Service. It begins with an amazing lead-in that is Anglican praying at its best:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord…

Beautiful. Makes the heart leap. Except perhaps for that little word “elect” which foreshadows the trap. And here it comes:

Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you…

What do those words seem to tell us? That we are saints when we are virtuous and our living is “godly,” and if we manage to do that we will get into heaven. Sprong! The trap has got us.

Second we just heard the Beatitudes, one of the most familiar and beloved passages of Scripture. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” They are profound and beautiful. But the trap is there, because it is so easy to read them as a formula: “if you do this, then you will get this.” It seems there is a reward for good behavior or for suffering. Sprong! The trap has us again!

And then there is this baptism we are doing this morning. We are making little Izayah a member of the body of Christ, a saint. The trap is that we think we can do this because he is just an innocent child. He couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong yet. He is as pure as the driven snow. Sprong! The trap has us again!

We mean well. We want to be good, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. God is happy when you and I try to be “virtuous” and to lead “godly lives.”

The trap we set for ourselves, however, is thinking that it is our goodness that will save us. The trap is believing that it is our virtue that makes God fall in love with us. The trap is proclaiming that in order to be right with God you have to behave yourself. You need to make yourself worthy of God’s favor.

It is what we proclaim far too often. It is, at least, what people hear. “I’m no saint,” they say, even we say sometimes. “I hope the roof doesn’t fall in,” they say when they come into church after a long absence. Thousands of people give up on God because they hear us saying that God has given up on them.

Which is not the good news.

The good news is this: We are saints. We are. Good, bad and everything in between. We are saints. It’s a miracle!

We are saints not because we behave ourselves but because God loves us, and God always loves us first, before we do anything at all.

That’s why we can baptize this baby. That’s what his baptism is an amazing sign of: it is not what we do that matters, it’s what God does. God has taken the initiative to love us. As John says in the little bit of his letter that we just heard,

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.

That is what we are! Can you hear that Church? That is what we are. I know your ears are hearing it, but does your soul hear it deep down in the center of your very being? That is what we are!

It is our identity that is proclaimed in our baptism and carried with us as a mark, a seal, on our souls. We are loved. We are children of God. We are saints. And we haven’t done anything to deserve it! Nothing!

Now isn’t that a kick in the pants!

That is the good news we have to proclaim. And it is worth proclaiming! And the world around us desperately needs to hear it! We need to hear it. Do we have to be convinced of how desperately?

Last night at this Altar, after we had read the names of all those who have gone before us into the nearer presence of God, we remembered all those who had been murdered in this city since All Saints’ Day last year. There were 48 of them. And that’s in a year of so-called “zero tolerance.” 48.

The tragedy is this: I’m willing to bet that very few of them knew in his or her heart that she or he was a child of God, beloved just because they are. And I’m certainly willing to bet that perhaps none of those who did the murdering knew that.

People do not know that God loves them. I mean really loves them, so that their dignity as a human being is never in question. No one can give them their dignity or take it away. It is an eternal gift from God. People don’t know that and it is our fault.

But what about behavior? Doesn’t behavior matter? Isn’t it an epidemic of bad behavior that is getting us into this trouble? I don’t think so. I think it is an epidemic of the lack of the belief in the unconditional love of God.

Loved people do not kill other people. Dignified people do not need intentionally to do wrong to another.

Let me speak to this family, but I want all of you to hear it. Don’t you ever dare let this child believe he is not a child of God no matter what. Don’t you dare let this child ever believe that he needs somebody else, including you, to give him the dignity that is his by right of his being alive. Teach him that nothing can separate him from the love of God. Tell him over and over again what we say over him today, “You are marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

Church, let us step back from the trap of thinking we can earn our way to God’s love, that we get into heaven when we’ve behaved ourselves. That is not the good news we have to proclaim. It’s not the good news that Jesus proclaimed. It’s not the good news that our ancestors like Paul and John and Mary and Luke and Simon and Stephen handed on to us.

The good news is that we are saints. The good news is that we are loved. The good news is that we are called children of God, and that is what we are.

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